By David Droschak
Celebrating the 75th anniversary of the Blue Ridge Parkway wouldn’t be complete without paying homage to one of the truly great public golf courses in the state of North Carolina.
Mount Mitchell Golf Club in Yancey County is just a five-minute drive from the National Scenic Byway, sitting in a “valley” at 3,000 feet in the Pisgah National Forest, nestled alongside the pristine South Toe River with a canvas of the highest point east of the Mississippi River as its backdrop.
“I guess we take this view for granted being here every day,” said co-owner Jim Floyd. “We get people off the Blue Ridge Parkway every day that just stumble on the place, pull in the parking lot and can’t believe what type of views we have here. The scenery is so good and the contrast with the traps and the green grass is pretty impressive.”
The beauty factor is ramped up a notch or two from mid-to-late October when the peak fall leaf season hits its stride.
“This is a great spot to be in the summer time because it is cooler than places like Raleigh, Charlotte and Atlanta, but the fall is a special time,” Floyd said. “It’s fun for us to see in early October the colors changing up high because it is so visible, and then the colors just work their way down the mountain and eventually get to the golf course. It doesn’t get much better than Mount Mitchell Golf Club for a three-week period in October.”
There’s a good reason you might recognize Floyd if you’ve played Mount Mitchell a time or two over the years. That’s because the Raleigh Broughton High School graduate is the original owner, along with partner and former University of North Carolina classmate Lee King of Hickory.
The two friends often talked about getting into the golf business as they played Finley Golf Course in Chapel Hill in the mid 1960s. However, their plans were put on hold as each served tours in Vietnam.
The “golf dream” began to fall into place for Floyd and King in the early 1970s, largely because of two connections from Floyd’s father. Floyd’s dad was a real estate broker for the property owners where Mount Mitchell Golf Club now sits (and he also lived across the street from them in Raleigh) and also had struck up a friendship with golf course architect Fred Hawtree during trips to Scotland.
When the prime mountain land became available, the Floyd and King families purchased the property in December 1971 and set out to develop the area with homesites — and a golf layout designed by none other than Hawtree.
“Fred came over and did some preliminary work and walked the land and came up with a pretty interesting layout, taking advantage of the level terrain and following the routing of the South Toe River around the back nine,” Floyd said. “The river came into play on a couple of holes and it seemed like a great situation.”
Mount Mitchell ended up being Hawtree’s only design in the United States before he passed away in 2000. He was paid just $20,000, and the entire course cost about $200,000 to build. Its value today is estimated at $4 million.
“It was quite a bargain, even in those days,” Floyd said of the 35-year-old layout.
A bargain, for sure, and a course that would not likely be built today because of stricter environmental regulations for golf developments across the state.
“It would be difficult,” Floyd said. “This stream has gotten a lot of great publicity over the years for the quality of its water, and I think it would be very difficult to build this course in this location without some extreme precautions to protect the steam. It would be cost prohibitive, but it has been great for us.”
Mount Mitchell is wall-to-wall bent grass, giving the course a lush and soft feel most of the golfing season, which runs from April-mid November. The grass surface also results in the course playing longer than the 6,495 yards from the tips.
“It makes for a great fairway surface and most of the time you can play the ball down,” Floyd said. “We think it makes the golf more enjoyable. The golfers know they have good conditions when they come here.”
The excellent course conditions are no accident. Mount Mitchell superintendent Jim Laughridge has been here since ground-breaking, and plays a major role in the course’s upkeep.
The feature hole on the front side is No. 6, a 170-yard par-3 that offers a straight-on view of the towering mountain range as you tee it up.
“Even though that hole is flat you really get a feel of being in the mountains,” Floyd said.
The back nine’s best hole is also the most difficult on the course, the 450-yard 14th. Golfers must hit a drive far enough to get around the corner, then face a second shot over the South Toe River to a green guarded by two large bunkers.
Mount Mitchell Golf Club added a catch-and-release program for trout fishing four years ago, and Floyd said the fishing aspect of the resort has taken off recently. Permits for one ($25) or three days ($50) can be purchased in the pro shop. Anglers must supply their own fly rods.
Trout as large as 30 inches have been caught in the river.
Golfers can even purchase bags of fish food in the pro shop for 80 cents, and feed the fish near the 2nd tee and heading over a bridge to the 15th green.
“There are some monster trout in there,” said Floyd, who noted that the Mount Mitchell Golf Club and development runs along 2 miles of the South Toe River. “We’re looking for true sportsmen who like catch-and-release. Some guys will golf in the morning and then fish in the afternoon, or vice versa. It has become quite a treat for people to come and do this.”
Staying on site at one of Mount Mitchell’s new condos or in a home for a two- or three-day package is the way to go. While in Yancey County, don’t miss a drive along the Blue Ridge Parkway to the top of 6,684-foot Mount Mitchell State Park, or partake some of Jewell Autry’s homemade cole slaw at Mt. Mitchell View Restaurant 30 seconds away from the golf course’s entrance.
“This area is not for everybody because we’re tucked in the middle of a national forest,” Floyd said. “But some people enjoy getting out of cell phone coverage and it’s certainly quiet.”
Weekday golfing rates are $58, with weekend green fees set at $88. Those rates drop if you choose to stay on site.
“We’re at 3,000 feet and the mountain range in front of the golf course rises very dramatically another 3,600 feet in elevation as the crow flies,” Floyd said. “It makes for a very dramatic scene.”
And no better way to spend a fall day in North Carolina.